Sometime in the early 1890s, beneath the rocky Oklahoma soil that was the last reservation and refuge of the Osage Indian nation, the Osage discovered oil. A decade later, facing the inevitable assault from land-hungry settlers from the east, Chief James Bigheart and his half-Sioux lawyer, John Palmer, shrewdly extracted from an unsuspecting U.S. government permanent rights to all underground minerals.
And so the Osage nation — secure in their new “underground reservation” — became fabulously wealthy and thoroughly cursed. Although few Americans are familiar with the history, the events that followed over the next 20 years transfixed the country, first through newspapers and dime novels, later by radio and newsreel. Bizarre stories of luxury automobiles surrounding campfires, tepees staked next to sprawling mansions, were met with fascination and deep, underlying resentment in a world where Native Americans had been forcibly swept westward, then told to assimilate or die.
“Then came the murders of Osage men and women. Some shot, some beaten, some poisoned, some bombed as they slept in their beds.”
Then came the murders of Osage men and women. Some shot, some beaten, some poisoned, some bombed as they slept in their beds. Naturally, press coverage grew more sensational, headlines blared more garishly than ever, while public fascination morphed into horror and disbelief. Could a single serial killer murder in so many different ways? Why were so many victims members of the same family? How were the two grisly murders of prominent local white men – one stripped naked and thrown from a train, the other stripped naked and stabbed on a Washington, D.C., street – connected to the Osage murders, if at all?
David Grann unravels the mystery of this horrific tale, including the role the murders played in shaping a young FBI. Readers familiar with the history of broken U.S.-Indian treaties will find little comfort and no daylight here, as each murder adds fresh and mounting disbelief to the story. Yet in hindsight, all seems maddeningly predictable. “Some day this oil will go and there will be no more fat checks every few months from the Great White Father,” Grann quotes an Osage chief. “There’ll be no fine motorcars and new clothes. Then I know my people will be happier.”
The story does have heroes, not least of which is the author himself. Grann clearly finds inspiration from some of the players, chief among them Mollie Burkhart, who lost three sisters and a mother in the murder spree, and Special Agent Tom White, who oversaw the Bureau of Investigation probe. Section I is titled “The Marked Woman,” which refers to Mollie, and Section II, “The Evidence Man,” refers to White. The title of the third section, “The Reporter,” refers to the author himself, who clearly wishes to take a stand with those who represent the light in this very dark tale.
“The explosive impact of Section III is a true shock .”
The placement is well deserved. Halfway through the book, the motives for the murders become clear, and the story unfolds fairly predictably, if forcefully, throughout Section II. But the explosive impact of Section III is a true shock, and here the full value of the author’s exhaustive research comes to light.
It’s too easy to relate this story to the politics of today – pipelines and deportations and travel bans notwithstanding. A curious development in the continuing history is Osage objections to a windmill farm built in the area. The complexity of the issues is ironic and never-ending. But it’s safe to predict that few people will read this book without anger or a broken heart. The greatest contribution of Killers of the Flower Moon is simply to preserve the memory, leaving us all with at least the choice to act.